Post-Communism: An Infantile Disorder

By Sunley, Johnathan | The National Interest, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Post-Communism: An Infantile Disorder


Sunley, Johnathan, The National Interest


It is easy to describe developments in the countries of the old Eastern Bloc. You don't even need to be very well-informed about what's going on: an acquaintanceship with the past will serve you much better than a knowledge of recent events. Indeed, in this part of the world, to know the past - especially the distant past - is to understand the present.

That, or something very like it, is the major premise of many of the better-known books to have appeared over the last few years, purporting to offer Western readers a guide through the tangled terrain of Central and Eastern Europe. The very titles of works like The Rebirth of History, Balkan Ghosts, Exit into History, and The Haunted Land reflect that premise.(1) According to what we may term the Myth of the Past, this region is imprisoned by/impaled on/possessed by (pick your metaphor) its own history, and nothing short of collective exorcism or some more modern form of psychotherapy will set it free.

Most of the time, this curse is said to manifest itself as nationalism, a sub-set of the myth so misleading and so widespread that it deserves a separate label - The Myth of Nationalism - and separate handling. Fortunately, however, the familiar refrain goes, the majority of these countries have - after an initial outbreak of the nationalist malady - done the sensible thing by committing themselves to the hands of experienced and expert practitioners (mostly reformed communists, now champions of the free market and democracy) who, after all, know the patient better than anyone. As a result, their condition and prospects are said to be improving by the minute. So to the Myth of the Past and the Myth of Nationalism a third misjudgment may be added, completing the West's distorted perspective of this area: the Myth of a Bright Future.

The Myth of the Past

The surge of interest in the history of Central and Eastern Europe that occurred after 1989 is not difficult to explain. During the Cold War, the countries behind the "iron curtain" were treated by academics as a more or less homogeneous area. Indeed, the communist system was quite effective in imposing a superficial uniformity on places as far apart as Brno in the Czech Republic and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. After its collapse, it was natural that Western intellectuals and journalists should seek to make up for lost time and to rediscover their differences - especially now that so many former republics and regions were being reborn as independent states.

It wasn't long, though, before earnest attempts to distinguish Slovenia, Slavonia, and Slovakia gave way to an impatient feeling that the area once marked out by the Warsaw Pact had more history than it could handle. In truth, this area only has more history than can be handled comfortably by those who have no serious interest in it, and who are concerned to use it for some extraneous purpose. Chief among these is the instrumentalization of ethnic disputes, by which is meant the use of often fabricated or exaggerated histories of past conflict to justify political or other kinds of careers - of this, more below.

There are also more innocent misuses of the Myth of the Past. I well remember, for example, British Prime Minister John Major telling a Conservative Party conference how proud he had been to have attended events in Poland commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising - when what he meant to refer to was the 1944 Warsaw uprising (in which tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles perished). Or the look on the faces of some Slovak politicians on being informed by an assistant chief-of-staff at Allied Command Europe that their country had always been on the wrong side of the religious fault-line (another common metaphor, this) dividing Western Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy.

From this impatience and ignorance have followed policy prescriptions. Since the collapse of communism, no senior Western policymaker has engaged himself more with this region than Richard Holbrooke. …

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